Last year in the end of December, I was able to attend a talk by Marthe Cohn, holocaust survivor and French spy.
A diminutive woman in her mid-90s, she perched on a high chair with her husband by her side. I was part of the audience gathered at the Laguna Beach Chabad Center to hear her recount her story of living in German-occupied France and serving as a spy for the French Army.  We were totally captivated by her personality and what she had to say from start to finish, myself perhaps more than most because she reminded me so strongly of my beloved grandmother, Clara.
       Recently I finished reading her memoir, Behind Enemy Lines, written with renowned biographer Wendy Holden and published in 2002.  Easily readable because of the fine writing of Holden, Behind Enemy Lines is a book that should go on the list of anyone interested in the Jewish heroes of World War II.
       Marthe Cohn, who was born in 1920, the same year as Herman, the hero of Immigrant Soldier, was raised in a religious Jewish family in French Lorraine near the German border.  In childhood, she learned to speak  both French and German fluently. This skill made her perfectly suited for the role of a spy in French Army Intelligence. She was also petite, beautiful, and blonde, which didn’t hurt when she needed to distract German soldiers, but could also be a detriment for the same reasons.  The narrative starts with her girlhood and upbringing in Lorraine and proceeds as her large, tightly-knit family moves to southern France where they endure the years of German occupation.  Marthe is devastated by the death of her fiancé, executed by the Nazis for his involvement in the resistance, and by the disappearance of one of her sisters into the maelstrom of the German concentration camp system.
        After the liberation of Paris, Marthe seeks a way to contribute to the downfall of the German enemy and is given the opportunity to spy for the French Army. This is where her memoir becomes most exciting. In the freezing winter of 1944, not long after the Battle of the Bulge, she crosses from neutral Switzerland into territory still held by the Germans.  For weeks she wades through waist-deep snow and makes contact with sympathetic strangers, while the advancing allies move into  German territory, until finally she is united with the French Army.
       Certain sections of Behind Enemy Lines bear an eerie resemblance to information in Immigrant Soldier.  In particular, the description of her training when she enters the intelligence section of the French Army echoes what I learned about the curriculum at Camp Ritchie. She tells of the memorization of German uniforms, ranks, armaments, and equipment. “Small details such as buttons, collar patches, and shoulder straps all had to be committed to memory.” She was taught map reading, Morse code, and how to shoot such weapons as a tommy gun, a pistol, and a machine gun too heavy for her to lift.
        Marthe’s accounts of trying to travel from town to town, visiting villages, and crossing the snow-covered countryside, reveal the conditions and attitudes of the German people.  Transportation was limited, with only a few military vehicles, which were difficult to catch a ride as most were crowded with soldiers. Groups of women, children, and old men walked the roads as they tried to stay out of the way of retreating Germans and advancing Allies.  Food was scarce, towns smoldered after frequent air raids, and the few trains were crowded with soldiers and searched by officials who constantly checked passes and IDs. Marthe’s greatest coup was acquiring a bicycle, which for at least two days made travel easier.
       As much as I enjoyed the book, listening to the sprightly 96-year-old Marthe speak in person was even more engaging.  Some years ago, one of her presentations was videoed and here is a link.
         After her presentation, I was able to speak to her and gave her a signed copy of Immigrant Soldier. She was warm and responsive, saying she loved reading about other experiences of World War II and would surely read my book.  I hope she finds it as interesting as I found Behind Enemy Lines. Cohn


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *